“Beginning in 1990, the popular MUD LambdaMOO became a forum for debate, discourse and experimentation on the politics of virtual embodiment. It was a community of believers whose population reached 10,000. One player, legba, expressed the communal optimism in 1994 ""We exist in a world of pure communication, where looks don’t matter and only the best writers get laid.”
from Elvia Wilk: Where looks don’t matter and only the best writers get laid 2014
“There is no understanding to be had— this is simply the way things are, and there is no problem. When a Groupchat gives itself an end-zone, it’s already ended. Its life is being lived in extraordinary ways, in the smiling little cells in the veins of every person under the sun and moon.” -
from Prost/Behta/Chung-Rifenberg: The Groupchat Manifesto 2023
I never felt part of a network until that network became something personal. The times I write through the internet that feel most like channelling are always in relation to others, as if it’s enhancing the ties between each node in a pattern. All forms of writing are transcriptions, connections and patterns between what is thought and what is material in the spaces in between us. Writing is a practice of technology. What it should feel like to write on the internet can think of this practice as a multi-purpose tool, only in use for 1.6% of the time we have existed. As we’ve only been writing a short time we could think of it simply as a layer that sits atop oral traditions. Some hieroglyphs were symbols to be read aloud collectively in order to resurrect the dead, such was the weight given to the written word, a token of connectivity. Even now looking at graffiti written on the toilet walls of a blue-chip cultural institution, writing binds human activity and gives shape to the cognitive patterns that animate the spaces in between us. Writing on the internet, particularly cultural criticism, is long overdue a shedding of the dead skin model of legacy institution’s that yearn and grift for cultural legitimacy, pontificating para-academic rhetoric that preaches traction but is akin to picking a lock with a jellyfish. With clearnet social-media, it does seem to be the case that the ties that bind us, blind us to the emptiness of the prize. The prize is something you need to lean into, and something you lose when you become inactive, though the right kind of network will accentuate a sense of peopling where the outcome isn’t as valued as the felt intention of the experience. Through intention a sincerely formed pattern never perishes because it escapes the gaze of the specular economy. This isn’t so much internet culture as culture through the internet. The warm blurring of an interconnected online group consciousness means that the distinction between media generated has little importance. Essays can feel like music, music can feel like a podcast, a podcast can feel like art.
Writing with rather than on the network
Given that so much content is a commodity instantly replaceable, eternally resupplied, the last piece of information that came and the next one that comes forms an ouroboros channelled through and channelling never ending streams. It is not only the quality and price tag of content we should concern ourselves with but equally how that content and where and how it lives allows for participation and connection. This is what we mean when we say we want to express ourselves as collective subject. Let’s put it another way, when was the last time that someone wrote something online that really mattered once you took away the communal activity around it? This is worth thinking about when everything we write could already be written and not long from now will be reading itself, if it isn’t already. Megacorp communication tools have limited us to writing on the internet from hyper-individual nodes, rather than writing with it in a way that leans towards identity as something relational,a multitude of personalities, regardless if they come from one person offline or many. To write with the internet means to acquiesce to a certain amount of ego death, the kind seen in the pseudonymous semi-private online spaces where “rapyc-pollet,” a symbol of an individual, dissipates to just signal. We are writing about and with peer-networks as we are peer-networks and that is more sincere than allegedly resistant silo institutions that our taxes fund. It’s time for another trial on the Crime Against Art. The comparison here between the social web and that staged trial in 2007 is that the art world identities of Charles Esche and Anton Vidokle, despite having proposed their own reckoning with the failures of the social turn, have continued to operate in a model of siloed artworld stardom that cannot escape it’s only moral economy. Stardom is out, but the right kind of cultdom is in. The same moralism of capital C Contemporary Art is a significant bug of anti-social media which has led to a perception that the Internet, like all emerging technologies, kind of works as a barrier, as the technology is what we see first and foremost; internet bad vs. park with friends good. When I think of this I ask myself, what do I remember more, the fact that I was outside with friends or the fact that I felt safe and cared for or just collectively delirious. Designing tools for networked writing will require building on top of kitbashed social spaces that have brought back what became necessary some time ago - a human element that feels like someone is really talking to you. In order for writing with the internet to reach its highest form it will require a redfining of what social computing is and have affordances that mean that the warmth of an interaction remains if the technology is removed. Many of the best connections I have made in my life exist because of online grouped communication, but those connections will exist as long as I live even if we revert to pen and paper, but I find myself wondering what are the actual affordances of the tools we used that allowed that connection to bear fruit? And how might we build on them?
Writing with the internet is open. We can embed prompts, nodes and symbols that hijack the meaning of history in the history of culture. Taking a timeline as an example can only be useful when thinking about how the net art of the 90s which was playing around with the medium shifted to to the post-net art of the noughts where the medium gave way to the concept and comment, leaning into capital in a post-2008 market, to the current palimpsest of new-net art which involves people that are actually creating primitives and infrastructures where the line between creation, speculative design and industry product are not clear at all. Yes a timeline is a useful tool but what must be remembered is that there time is not black and white - any timeline which we read must be thought of as one stream and a multitude of streams of different histories, interacting and existing together as patterns in time in and of itself. We can think of our identities in the same way. There is no I when we write. Writing online in 2023 makes me/we/us/it feel like we’ve not been given the right tools to express ourselves, perhaps because there is no us in the siloed nature of “my account, my profile, my output”. Writing in real-time we don’t need to latch onto one fixed identity or tone, this text-to-stream can adopt different tones in line with the pseudonymity which is a characteristic of how writing should feel online. Reza stated that there is no “I” in the human centipede, but on that fabled evening at e-flux NY in 2013 he was an I, an individual forced to try communicate that the contemporary art world was interdependent mutually assured suffering, all in the name of a yearning for an outside that inevitably gets pulled from the margins to the centre. A network with the quality of aliveness where people move fluidly through identities and commune without hindrance is in a stronger position to define its own margins.
People with networked interests can now produce tools working towards the kind of affordances that point to network animism, tools that feel alive. Writing about culture online often feels like it's held back by the prerequisites of legacy platforms. We can be playful here, for example while our starting point may be a fixed essay that one reads on a screen, we may play with other models of text production, communal writing, divination and communion. Why should even this text you read now bear the same limitations of a printed document? It may read differently one hour or one year from now, and it should. Writing with the network will not work unless it engages a suitable size audience that controls the space they inhabit - lorecrafting has a Dunbar number. Smaller communities work better. Telfar made Telfar TV because it’s better to have dedicated content to a few thousand people who want to buy regularly from you than 10 million who are just window shopping content on a scroll. The need for connectivity didn’t feel human when we fought with people on the clearnet, so those with any sense migrated to the groupchat model. The affordances of these tools were not designed for how we are using them though, so we will need new tools down the road. For instance, why would you really need to know which one of us is speaking in a text-based interview, if we are all forming in-group knowledge together anyway? What if that obscurity was a setting you could play with? Being pro-obscurity when it comes to atomised selves could be designed as an antidote to the never ending severing of ideologies in people who think they as an individual are always right and wrong at the same time. A collectively self-directed container where the stakes aren't capital but communion is max pleasure. The culture that will flourish from these containers is where we should keep our eyes.